Reliable, affordable energy does more than just help us run our businesses and homes. It connects us, keeps our medical facilities running, heats and cools our homes, and increases our productivity. But energy access is still out of reach for many. According to the UN, “Nearly 9 out of 10 people now have access to electricity, but reaching the unserved 789 million around the world – 548 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone – that lack access will require a concerted effort.” For example, in 2019, only 41% of people in Uganda had access to electricity, and 0% had access to clean cooking.
Fin-e was created to change that. While attending Harvard Kennedy School, Emmanuel Bukenya teased out the idea of a solar fintech that tackles the liquidity challenge in the solar industry. With help from the Harvard Innovation Labs and the Social Innovation + Change Initiative, Bukenya created Fin-e as an offshoot of Anuel Energy Inc., a C-corp American company with operations in Uganda. Fin-e connects select solar merchants and industry-specific lenders with homeowners who want to make the transition to solar. It ensures that the homeowner’s energy loans align with their energy needs. Fin-e also enables last-mile customer support through an army of technicians on the ground who ensure that the solar hardware works. The result is that customers gain a reliable solar power supply.
Read on to find out what inspired Emmanuel Bukenya to build a solar fintech and discover how Anuel has evolved!
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start this venture? How did you come to do this work?
Emmanuel Bukenya: I was born and raised in Africa, where energy was not readily available. We used a lot of kerosene lamps and candles to light our houses. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of my life working in the energy space, whether building biomass stoves or running a solar retail operation. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that energy access is still a challenge.
Close to 600 million people still don’t have access to electricity in Africa, and over a billion people across the globe live with intermittent energy. Blackouts affect their quality of life and overall productivity. So there’s a lot of work to be done in this space!
The biggest bottleneck is that most of these people cannot afford a lump sum payment to buy alternative energy solutions, like solar. So they have resorted to an installment payment system called pay-as-you-go. While this payment system is suitable for consumers, it isn’t that great for solar merchants. It prolongs the cash conversion cycle over months and years and creates a liquidity challenge in the industry. If merchants don’t have the cash to operate, they cannot grow, they cannot scale, and they cannot meet the needs of those millions with unmet energy needs.
HIL: What keeps you motivated as you develop your venture?
Bukenya: We understand energy poverty, and we know that energy is one of the essential elements in our lives. It helps us to keep our lights on, cook our meals, and cool our homes. It supports productive activities in our homes and businesses and supports public facilities, like schools and hospitals. We feel a sense of obligation to extend those benefits to millions of people and that goal keeps us motivated! Having a consistent energy supply is something people take for granted in the West, but it isn’t the case in other parts of the world.
HIL: What’s next for your venture? What are some next steps for you, and how do you see your venture growing?
Bukenya: We are currently running two pilots in Uganda. We have a few lenders on the platform and some merchants. We hope to stabilize our product in Uganda throughout 2021 and look toward an expansion strategy next year across East Africa and other parts of the continent when the system is robust enough to support thousands of merchants and their consumers.
In addition, there are adjacent markets and opportunities, such as home improvement. We know from experience that once people get solar light systems installed in their houses, they ask for home improvement appliances that can improve their quality of life. Of course, at the top of the list are TVs, refrigerators, solar water heaters, anything that can support a household as they climb the energy ladder. So we see an opportunity to upsell consumers as they build their homes, grow their businesses, and improve the quality of service in schools and hospitals.
HIL: Have there been any unexpected challenges while developing Anuel?
Bukenya: We grew out of brick and mortar, so we know how hard it is to grow from one branch to another, one district to another, or scale from one country to another, especially in an industry with a huge liquidity challenge. On the other hand, that same challenge inspired us to build an asset-light software business. Once we prove it in one country, we can scale it in another and across the region. As long as a lender understands a particular region and the energy industry, we can work together to plug solar merchants and use our experience running solar operations to make sure the technology product is responsive to the needs of the merchants and their customers. The challenge itself is an opportunity!
HIL: Has your venture changed since you first conceived of the idea?
Bukenya: Not really! We’ve evolved. We have maintained a brick-and-mortar operation and also built a parallel solar fintech on the other side. We use the brick-and-mortar operation as a testbed. All our technology features are tested within the brick and mortar to get early feedback before extending these improvements to other merchants. So in a way, these two entities work hand-in-hand.
Anuel Energy Inc. is part of our series of profiles on ventures in the inaugural Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle, a global cohort of Harvard students and alumni actively working on solutions that tackle climate change. Want to learn more about what businesses are doing, can do, and should do to confront climate change? Check out the BEI Climate Rising podcast, hosted by Rebekah Emanuel, Director of Social Entrepreneurship for the Harvard Innovation Labs.